The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District
I’m not really one for planning.
I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?
So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.
The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.
There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.
The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)
“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.
“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)
The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.
I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.
Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.
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